Sunday, March 1, 2009

What’s in a Name?

Sometimes the words spoken or written by someone else impact us in unexpected ways. My altarpiece series of personal saints is almost entirely based on my study of the writings of others. There are, however, several altarpieces that are currently in the construction stage that came about by much more haphazard means. For instance, the concept for one piece was born out a fairly minor point in a sermon I heard a few years ago. I think it was a Good Friday sermon, but who knows now because what I retained was a vivid image that took me in a direction that my priest would certainly not have anticipated.

The most unusual case like this began sometime in the mid-1990s. The band Sixpence None the Richer, long before they had a hit song on the teen television (melo)drama Dawson’s Creek, released a CD entitled Tickets for a Prayer Wheel. I was always struck by this title and kept it in the back of my mind for some future use.

About four or five years ago the title became the impetus for an altarpiece exploring the concept of prayer. The only problem was that I had no idea what a prayer wheel actually was. I used the term to conjure up my own meaning and imagery. Upon researching the term I learned that a prayer wheel is used in Buddhist practices and that Annie Dillard, of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek fame, had actually first written a poem that shares the title, which is included in her book of poetry of that same name.

I came to the phrase through the backdoor, but by the time I recognized the genesis of the term my personal conceptualization of a prayer wheel was well underway. My prayer wheel would need to present a characteristic similar to a carnival game. My reasoning was that our concept of prayer often expresses a quality that resembles games of chance (for this I owe a debt to both Joseph Cornell and Robert Indiana). The prayers in my game/altarpiece lack a certain amount of faith and are often self centered. They are somewhat like the prayers that Anne LaMott, in her book Traveling Mercies, places in the categories of Help Me! Help Me! Help Me! and Thank You! Thank You! Thank You! Sometimes that is all we can muster. And I am well aware that, when uttered in desperation and faith, God answers them. This rudimentary format is, nevertheless, the basis of the practice of prayer and so this almost comical side had to come through.

One of the first objects, or relics, I envisioned for this altarpiece was one of those sets of chattering teeth that you wind up. I looked high and low on trips all over the U.S. and could never find them in any store. I think I would have had better luck checking the back pages of comic books, and could probably have found some X-ray specs, too! Just before I was settling on purchasing some chattering teeth—ones I didn’t even like that much—online I stumbled upon a much better replacement. (along similar lines, I am currently searching for a small plastic chameleon and always appreciate a good lead!)

One Saturday morning I was wandering the streets of lower Manhattan, on my way to visit the galleries in the Chelsea district, when I stumbled upon a flea market located in a parking garage. I found out some months later that this was one of the last Saturdays the flea market was still open. It no longer exists. Always on the lookout for some specific or not yet discovered/uncovered object, I stopped inside. Amongst the oddments I saw them. A slightly oversized set of teeth. These plastic teeth are the sort that a dentist uses when showing a patient the proper method for brushing. In fact, there was also an oversized toothbrush, but I passed on that, even though the dealer really wanted to unload both items.
I was able to talk the dealer down to $20 from the $30 he was asking, I spent the remainder of the day traversing the streets of New York with these oversized choppers in my Timbuk 2 messenger bag. I can only imagine the private conversation the teeth held with my Mac laptop. I suspect the prayers had already begun.

Now the teeth are gilded in silver and gold. That was always my intention. Their size was much more appropriate to the task than the wind up teeth. They invoke the same humorous presence, but the gilding elevates their station. They are now a relic. They possess a presence of holiness that belies their common and humorous stature. The gilded teeth are much like humans—crass and comical, we are created with much more dignity than we often display or comprehend.

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